No answers 2 years after 20-year-old student vanishes -- a single case in an epidemic in American Native communities
"No matter what ... we’re going to keep looking for Ashley," her sister said.
In a remote corner of the Blackfeet Nation, tucked beside a dark stretch of cottonwood and paper birch, there was a desolate trailer that had been vacant for months. Its tin paneling, singed black in places from fire, had begun to peel off in the High Plains wind. The small dank rooms were mostly empty save for piles of discarded clothing and abandoned furniture.
Only the cautious footsteps and hushed voices of the Loring Heavy Runner family betrayed any sense of life that day in June 2018. Their flashlights cast about in the solemn darkness.
"What do you got?" Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner asked her aunt and uncle as they bent down behind an old box television set.
"Right there, do you see how discolored it is, and the rest is clean?" Jenna Loring said, pointing her cellphone at a small discoloration in the shag carpet. "Does it look like it could be dried blood?"
"Possibly," Justin Loring, her husband, answered as he revealed a box cutter from his pocket and began to cut a square from the carpet. The family huddled over him in anticipation.
"Oh my gosh, it's all red," Jenna Loring said as she stared down at a maroon-colored stain in disbelief.
Justin Loring, already wearing blue plastic gloves, tucked the removed piece of carpet into a plastic grocery bag and tied it tight. "Don't know how well I'm preserving it, but we're getting something," he said.
Overwhelmed, Kimberly Loring stepped outside into the fading light for some air, the rosy silhouette of the Rocky Mountains looming before her.
Kimberly Loring, 25, never imagined she and her family would be investigating the agonizing mystery of what happened to her little sister Ashley Loring, who was 20 years old when she disappeared from Montana's Blackfeet Nation in June 2017. Scenes like this one have become all too common for her.
"It's a nightmare that never stops," she told "Nightline."
For more than two years, the Loring family has scoured their immense reservation, largely on their own, hoping to retrace their loved one's last known steps. The carpet square is not the only piece of potential evidence Kimberly Loring says her family has turned over to law enforcement.
Just weeks after Ashley Loring went missing, Kimberly Loring and a family friend discovered a pair of red-stained boots and a tattered sweater that the family believes belonged to Ashley Loring on the northern edge of the reservation. More than two years since turning those items into law enforcement for DNA testing, the family says they have not received any results.
"If me and my family didn't search for Ashley, I don't think anybody would be looking for her," Kimberly Loring said.
In Native American communities across the country, there's a common saying: When an Indigenous woman goes missing, she goes missing twice — first her body vanishes and then her story.
In 2016, there were nearly 6,000 indigenous women reported missing. Yet, only 116 were logged in the National Missing Persons database, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.
"There are so many bureaucratic cracks that Native women and girls are not only falling through but actually pushed through," said Annita Lucchesi, a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge in Southern Alberta, Canada, whose work has been critical to tracking the issue.
In indigenous communities, nearly everybody knows someone who's been affected.
"A sister, an auntie, a mother that was murdered, or went missing," indigenous activist Roxanne White said. "This is our life. This is what we're born into."
Native communities' hands tied in criminal investigations
Ashley Loring grew up on the remote Blackfeet Nation in northwest Montana. Once lords of the High Plains, the Blackfeet endured a brutal relationship with the U.S. government ever since Meriwether Lewis shot and killed a Blackfoot man near Camp Disappointment on July 27, 1806.
The tribe went on to survive massive land loss, disease and forced starvation. The mass grave known as Ghost Ridge is where hundreds of starved Blackfeet lie buried beside the former Indian Agency where they waited in vain for government-promised rations. It's just a short hike from Ashley Loring's home.
Ashley Loring's own family still carries the memory of their ancestor, Chief Heavy Runner, who was killed in 1870 when his peaceful camp of mostly women and children were massacred by a drunk army colonel named Eugene Baker on the Marias River.
"The Indian problem of old was to kill them and move them," Harry Barnes, a former tribal chairman, told ABC News. "The Indian problem today is, 'Let's forget they exist.'"
"We survived those epidemics. We survived the extermination — the assimilation programs," Darrell Norman, a Blackfeet historian, told ABC News. "We lived through all that and we're still here and now we have doctors, we have lawyers, we have all the things that they never expected us to have."
Today, this proud, resilient community resembles most small towns of the West. But from the 1979 kidnapping and murder of Monica Still Smoking to the 2016 murder of Matthew Grant, systemic poverty, an influx of drugs and a justice system seemingly designed to fail have all contributed to a string of unsolved violent crimes in this windswept region.
"There's so much crime here on the reservation and it just goes nowhere. They don't do anything," said Loxie Loring, Ashley Loring's grandmother.
Growing up, Ashley Loring and her sisters spent several months in foster care before going to live with their grandparents and other siblings.
"She was a good girl. We didn't have no trouble with her," Loxie Loring said of her granddaughter. "I could count on her to get a little more work out of her than the other two."
The sisters learned how to ride, chopped wood for their grandmother's wood stove, mucked stalls and swam in a nearby creek until well after the sun disappeared.
Known for her contagious smile, Ashley Loring was a star athlete in high school and excelled at the Blackfeet Community College where she studied the environment. She was once asked to give a presentation at a college in Bozeman about buffalo, her ex-boyfriend Calvin DeRouche said. Her speech earned her praise across the reservation.
"She blew everyone out of the water," DeRouche told ABC News. "She's outgoing, and she's smart. She was beautiful. Just everything that you can look for in a person, she had it."
Ashley Loring's disappearance shattered her family, her absence perhaps most painful for her little sister Jonnilyn.
"I stay up all night. I wake up at three every morning and I sit there and I think about her," Jonnilyn said. "When I do fall asleep, I'll wake up and wait for her to come through the door, but she never does."
In the first two weeks after Ashley Loring went missing, the family thought she had been visiting a family friend and had lost her phone, which has happened before. When they realized something was wrong in late June 2017, the family said they filed a missing persons report with the tribal police and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
Those authorities joined the family on several early searches. But according to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, it would be two months before the BIA — which is responsible for investigating major crimes on the reservation — seriously investigated the case.
"Does it seem like protocol is being followed when there was a two month lag time between when she went missing and when the [BIA] began investigations?" Senator Steve Daines said during a Senate hearing in December 2018 as he grilled BIA representative Charles Addington about Ashley Loring's case.
"No. And I think there's got to be a lot better coordination at the beginning," Addington responded. Daines went on to describe Addington's response as "the understatement of the day."
"Law enforcement did not handle Ashley's case the way they should have," said Justin Loring, Ashley Loring's uncle. "They should've took it serious from the get-go. They just kind of blew it off as she was of age and she's just out there she could do what she wants."
Frank Goings is one of just 17 tribal police officers tasked with patrolling the 1.5 million acre reservation — an area larger than the entire state of Delaware.
"We should be staffed up to 50 officers, but unfortunately money is a big issue," Goings told "Nightline."
The reservation's beleaguered police force has a call load that rivals Montana's largest cities, according to Lt. Josh Bird, yet they are equipped with a fraction of the resources and officers to handle the crime rate.
Funded through contracts with the BIA — already known for being one of the most chronically underfunded branches of the federal government — the Blackfeet Tribe has constantly asked for more resources to protect its citizens, according to former Tribal Chairman Harry Barnes.
Chronic underfunding from the federal government isn't the only obstacle facing tribal investigators here; they must also navigate a complex jurisdictional maze.
"You have three different governments who are responsible for protecting public citizens in Indian country: the federal government, state governments and tribal governments," said Monte Mills, a tribal law scholar at the University of Montana. "Any time you get three governments together to try and do anything it becomes challenging."
Due to a Supreme Court ruling and acts of Congress, most tribes can only charge their own members with a crime, which means they can't arrest anybody else who commits a crime on their own land. They need to enlist outside help to do so.
"If I was to stop a nonmember right now, I'd have to sit here and wait for that deputy to get here, and it could take him an hour to get here," Goings said.
What's more, most tribes are barred from charging anyone — even their own members — with major crimes such as rape or murder. Those cases can only be handled by federal agencies like the BIA and FBI.
"I'll be honest, it is frustrating. But if it takes time then it takes time on the federal side," Goings said. "It's just the way it is here."
"While the jurisdictions fight, the crime goes on," Barnes said. "It makes it a good, fertile business plan to sell drugs on Indian reservations, unfortunately. The drug dealers know that and so they move in here and take advantage, victimize our members who may have acquired bad habits of using drugs."
"Every day tribal governments and tribal people are really working to address public safety in Indian country and they have significant challenges, many of which are historical and out of their control," Mills said. "It's had significant effects on tribes' ability to protect their people, and it's inconsistent and unlike any other jurisdiction in the country. In some ways, I think inconsistent with our idea of what justice is."
"If we really are a system that's founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, can we guarantee that for the people who were here first?" he asked.
Native women in need, abandoned
Ashley Loring's story is one that's familiar to Carolyn DeFord, a Puyallup tribal member in Washington. She said her mom went missing in October 1999, and nearly 20 years later, "there have been no answers. There have been no solid conclusions."
DeFord said police didn't take her report "seriously" until a couple of weeks had passed and her mother was still missing.
"They kind of expected her to come home," DeFord said, a common expectation for missing women that puts their lives in danger and makes delivering justice less likely.
"We hear about victim blaming in the news all the time and when an indigenous woman goes missing, their whole life is under the microscope and there's excuses by law enforcement as to where they could be, where they should be, why they aren't there," DeFord said. "They're devalued based on their life experiences or their social status in the community, and not held with the same level of importance that somebody who holds status in the community would get."
"When you lose somebody that's that much of a part of your life and nobody does anything, the message is clear that there's no value and there's no resources to help you heal from that," she added.
Lucchesi, who is also executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, spearheads a critical project lending gravity to these women's stories: the only database for logging cases of missing and murdered indigenous women in North America.
"There are no comprehensive lists of how many cases of [missing and murdered indigenous women] there have been," Lucchesi said. "Canada has attempted to answer that question by saying they believe there is about 12,000 cases in Canada but they haven't made that data accessible. And in terms of the United States, there is no list aside from the database."
In the absence of government data, Lucchesi built her database on her own, researching missing persons cases and filing Freedom of Information Act requests with authorities around the country. Today her work has been cited in the halls of the Senate and remains the only comprehensive list of missing and murdered indigenous women in the U.S.
Lucchesi said the work is "healing" for her.
"I think when we're able to honor them and able to remember them and to give the violence that they experienced the meaning and transform it into something to protect other women and girls, I think it helps them to feel at peace. So it brings me to a place of healing and a place of peace to know that those spirits might be feeling a little bit better," she said.
Ashley Loring Heavy Runner was Lucchesi's student in three classes at Blackfeet Community College, including in a speech class where Lucchesi says she excelled.
"She was incredibly humble about it. Every time she got an A or B, she'd be like, 'Me? I got an A?' and I'd have to be like, 'Yeah, just like last time. You're smart,'" Lucchesi said.
"Before Ashley went missing, we actually had a discussion on missing and murdered Native women in the speech class," Lucchesi said. "When I…saw that she had been reported missing as well...it made me feel sick because I felt like I worked really hard to…protect all my students…I still wasn't able to protect her."
Lucchesi said she personally entered Ashley Loring's name into the database to ensure her story wasn't lost.
"That was a hard day. I prayed really hard that I would be able to delete it, because once they're found safe, I remove them for their privacy. So when I entered Ashley into the system, I really prayed hard that I would be able to delete her from that spreadsheet someday and hopefully I will," she said.
Sam, 'V-Dog' and 'Tee'
Just weeks after Ashley Loring went missing, Kimberly Loring and a family friend discovered potential evidence on the edge of the reservation near the town of Babb — a pair of red-stained boots and a tattered sweater.
"It was the last thing she was wearing I guess," Kimberly Loring said. "We turned that over to the police…It was just put in a room for months."
Kimberly Loring found the sweater and boots not far from a remote lake house owned by Sam McDonald, who she says was one of the last people Ashley Loring was with.
After the loss of her beloved grandfather and a devastating breakup with her first love, Kimberly Loring said her sister began using drugs and hanging out with an older crowd including McDonald, who was in his 50s at the time.
"She lost two of her support systems, after that she was just a whole different person," Kimberly Loring said.
"Nightline" went to Sam McDonald's remote lakeside cabin to ask him about the six days he says he spent with Ashley Loring. He insists he "was being framed," although he admits he partied with Ashley Loring and has been battling addiction for years.
Law enforcement questioned McDonald multiple times about Ashley Loring's disappearance. He claims police broke the lock on his door and searched his property "maybe six times."
McDonald claims the last time he saw Ashley Loring was on the morning of June 11, 2017 after she asked him to take her to a roadside pull off so that someone named "V-Dog" could pick her up.
"At that time I leaned my chair back, we had been up for days and just like that I went to sleep, and when I woke up, she was gone," he said.
McDonald claims he looked for Ashley Loring after he woke up but couldn't find her.
"I thought, 'Well, she must have got her ride: V-dog,'" he said.
McDonald said he was later told that V-Dog is a nickname for Paul Valenzuela, a man in his 50s with a criminal background including burglary and weapons convictions, who split his time between the Seattle area and the Blackfeet reservation.
Ashley Loring's family said Valenzuela was seeing her shortly before she disappeared and that, at the time, he was still in a rocky marriage with Tashina Running Crane, who is also known as "Tee." According to the Glacier County Court, Valenzuela filed for divorce from Tee roughly a month after Ashley Loring vanished.
"I talked to Sam a lot this summer, and he kept telling me, that I need to talk to Tee and Paul, that they were the ones that know where Ashley's at," Kimberly Loring said. "First it's Sam, then it's Tee, then it's Paul… It's back and forth. It's like they're playing with us."
Her frustration only got worse after YouTube user Tee Eastwood posted a 14-minute recording online in September 2017 under the title "Set up." In the recording, Tee claims Valenzuela is framing her for Ashley Loring's disappearance.
"Basically, he has Ashley, and everybody in this town knows it," Tee can be heard telling friends in the recording. "Paul is trying to set me up."
The post was later taken down.
Across the mountains in the fall of 2017, Tee agreed to meet "Nightline" at a local cafe. At the time, Valenzuela was incarcerated on an illegal firearms conviction, but the two had since reconciled.
"I was blaming Paul. I was very upset with him, because everybody was telling me it was Paul," Tee told "Nightline." "When I finally sat him down and found out the truth, I told him I was sorry and everything for even thinking like that."
During the interview, Valenzuela called Tee from prison. When Tee told Valenzuela she was being interviewed by ABC News and that "they want to talk to you," Valenzuela abruptly hung up the phone.
Tee claimed she had been searching for Ashley Loring — which Ashley Loring's family denies — but left the reservation to escape what she said are false accusations.
"They said that I killed her... They say that I caught my husband and her, but I didn't," Tee said.
Tee claims she didn't know about her husband's relationship with Ashley Loring until after her disappearance. Tee also said she and Paul were in Seattle at the time that Ashley Loring disappeared. A review of Valenzuela's court records show that he was in the Seattle area in early June 2017.
But a report from a corrections officer to a superior court judge also says that on June 9, 2017, Valenzuela told Washington correctional authorities that he intended to return to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana to collect his belongings — just two days before McDonald claims Ashley Loring got picked up by Valenzuela on the side of a reservation road.
Valenzuela told Washington correctional authorities he would return to the state in the first week of July. Instead, according to court records, he evaded correctional authorities for more than two months before finally returning to Washington for a sentencing hearing in September 2017. By October, he was sentenced to serve 20 months in prison over the original weapons conviction.
Soon after Ashley was reported missing, Kimberly Loring says she texted both Tee and Valenzuela respectively about Ashley Loring's disappearance. The text conversations, reviewed by ABC News, show a person identified as Tee claiming that "Paul has her" and another from a person identified as "Paul," writing, "Tashina is giving you false info. Ask her she prolly knows more than she's saying."
"Nightline" asked Tee about that text message.
"Oh my God. Well, that's shocking. I have no idea why he would say something like that," she said.
"Is there something that you're not telling us about Paul?" Nightline asked.
"I don't know. No. I told you guys everything. I didn't even think he would say anything like that about me. I thought he was helping me on this. That's horrible."
Shortly afterward, Tee abruptly ended the interview.
Valenzuela later wrote to "Nightline" from prison, promising he could reveal who "did all this to Ashley. Trust me I am the only one who can."
But he said he'd only talk if he was transferred to a different prison, something ABC News could not and would not do, and he refused to be interviewed.
Ashley Loring's family tracks down new potential leads
In February 2018, the FBI took the lead on Ashley Loring's case, nearly nine months after she first disappeared.
When asked why the FBI waited to take the lead on Ashley Loring's case, an FBI spokesperson wrote to ABC News claiming they had done so "at the request of the BIA." The spokesperson later clarified that "a request from a partner agency is not required" for the FBI to become involved in a missing persons case.
Local news reported that the FBI Salt Lake field office, the same office handling Ashley Loring's case, took just weeks to join the search for Mackenzie Lueck, a 23-year-old white University of Utah student who went missing in June 2019. Her body and suspected killer were subsequently discovered within a month.
"Why do they jump all over trying to find a white person [and then] when a native goes missing they just look the other way, blow it off?" Justin Loring said.
The FBI spokesperson claimed the bureau investigates "all appropriate matters" within its legal scope "regardless of age, race and gender."
For months, Ashley's family went without any progress in her case. The family celebrated her 21st birthday without her in November 2017. They marched to mark the one-year anniversary of her disappearance in June 2018.
By June 2018, the family got permission to search a trailer that Valenzuela and Tee had frequented, and that Ashley Loring reportedly visited during the summer that she vanished. Law enforcement had already gone through it, but the skeptical family wanted a look for themselves. It was there that they discovered the maroon stain beneath the shag carpet.
"I don't know if it's ever going to get tested because we also tried to do that with the sweater, and we are still a whole year [waiting] for that sweater to be tested," Kim said.
Despite it all, Kimberly Loring's determination never wavered. She even testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee about her sister's case in December 2018.
Just days before her testimony, Ashley Loring's name appeared publicly on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System for the first time in 18 months.
"Please look into the law enforcement working missing and murdered indigenous women, because there is something seriously wrong here because our girls are people and our men are important," Kimberly Loring said during her testimony.
The day after her testimony, she got a surprise call.
"She called me and she was just hysterical," Jenna Loring, Kimberly Loring's aunt, remembered. "She said, the FBI called. They found human remains."
Jenna and Justin Loring went to the site of where the remains were found, not far from one of the family's previous search sites.
"Your mind's going a hundred miles an hour. You don't want it to be her, but then you want it to be her, because you know you want you want peace," Jenna Loring said. "We just want her home. We want it to end. It's literally a nightmare that we have to live. Every day, every single day, you know."
But the lead was false. The body turned out to be decades-old and that of a middle-aged man — another mysterious death unearthed from this haunting landscape.
"It was a very hard day that day and I hope that they laid that man to rest," Kimberly Loring said.
Life without Ashley
"Even though it's been two years, it's still new to us," Kimberly Loring said. "We will not get used to it because this is not our life — this is not normal to us. No matter what it takes, we're going to keep looking for Ashley."
No one has ever been arrested or charged in relation to Ashley Loring's disappearance.
The BIA and FBI both declined to be interviewed for this report, but a BIA spokesperson wrote to ABC News in October 2017 claiming the agency had conducted "60 interviews" and "six searches for Ashley," stating that its personnel take all of their investigations seriously.
After hearing from Kimberly Loring and other advocates, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee put forward a slate of bipartisan legislation to combat the crisis, but the BIA and FBI have yet to sign off on them, and the bills remain stalled.
If you have any information regarding Ashley's case, please contact the BIA at (833) 778-4758.
This report was featured in the Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, episode of ABC News' daily news podcast, "Start Here."
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